I believe that wisdom comes from knowing what to overlook. I believe it comes as much from knowing what to ignore as it does from age or experience.
At 68, my father has the wisdom of both age and experience. A teacher for thirty-nine years, he is wise in the ways of children. He knows they gain wisdom through their mistakes. Therefore, when it came to his own sons, he realized that their youth and inexperience led to the golf ball through the neighbor’s window and a seriously upset neighbor. No need to act seriously upset himself. In the absence of his own anger, he knew what his sons would remember was the impracticality of playing golf so near to any house.
I am not yet as wise as my father, but I am building a collection of mistakes that are making me wiser. At age thirteen, I mistakenly thought that moving from Indiana to Greece would not be the great, life-changing experience people said it would be. After I arrived, I overlooked chances I had to explore a new city, a new culture, a new world, and instead I focused on the heat, my small bedroom, and lack of decent television programming, determined to find fault with this ‘great’ experience. I was closed off because it was all unfamiliar. I was intimated by this ‘life-changing’ experience.
But I wised up. The strangeness of the city, the heat, pollution, unintelligible signage, receded– or I gradually stopped looking for it, and focused instead on the unexpected pleasures of this new place. I discovered I could traverse the city independently and safely. Safe mass transit brought a new freedom; my parents ended my curfew. The Greek custom is to stay out late. As long as they knew where I was and could reach me on my mobile, my parents overlooked the fact that I sometimes arrived home with the dawn. My parents saw that being on my own, I became more responsible. I saw that Athens much improves when seen by moonlight.
A school trip to Oman brought more new experiences. I ignored the disparaging remarks I had heard Americans make about Arabs and travelled there with an open mind. I thought Oman would have something to offer. I had heard Americans speak of Arabs as being primitive, unclean. Yet, I found the capital to be cleaner than many places in the States. I had heard Americans describe Arabs as ill-tempered and threatening. Yet, the family I stayed with showed me generous hospitality and kindness, much more so than I would have displayed had I been their teenaged host in the U.S. I discovered the wisdom of interpreting things for myself instead of through others. Had I prejudged Oman, I would not have enjoyed it as I did.
To be wise is an art, an art that requires a practiced eye. Skill comes with knowing what to see and what not to see.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.